How wagyu became the most abused term in the food world (thanks partly to Brooklyn Beckham)

Some say comparing a wagyu sirloin, right, with a typical steak is a bit like comparing lobster and scampi - Beth Evans

What makes an ingredient a true luxury? Some would say it’s scarcity – if white Alba truffles grew under every other oak tree, they might be rather less prized. For others, it’s about the effort that goes into farming, catching or collecting that luxury product. A Kashmiri crocus yields just three threads of saffron; ‘red gold’, it’s called.

Or take Almas caviar. Why is it the most expensive in the world? Partly because it’s gathered only from the Iranian albino huso huso sturgeon in the wild waters of the cleanest parts of the Caspian Sea.

You could buy lumpfish caviar – the label on the little jar will still read ‘caviar’ and it will set you back £5 for 100g (as opposed to £4,000) – but it won’t deliver the same level of indulgence. And it’ll certainly lose points for offering less in the way of mythology.

In the world of super-high-end food, mythology is all-important. And no other product has a web of lore woven around it quite like wagyu beef.

When its existence was first reported in Western media in the early 1970s, the stories about wagyu depicted small herds of Japanese cattle that were treated like royalty. These cows were said to be given daily massages and fed beer and sake. They listened to Mozart and spent their short lives in a controlled environment specially designed so that their bodies never experienced stress.

All this pampering was of course in pursuit of the meat they yielded: pale pink and run through with thousands of delicate ribbons of fat, a fillet of wagyu (the name literally translates as Japanese beef) bore little resemblance to the leaner, blood-red cuts of Aberdeen Angus that British and American diners were accustomed to.

Wagyu beef
Wagyu cows are said to be treated ‘like royalty’ in Japan - Jan Wischnewski

Back then, there wasn’t much opportunity to eat it outside Japan, less still to rear it. The first wagyu bulls were imported to the US in 1976, where they were crossbred with Angus or Continental cattle; in 1993, female wagyu cows followed. By 1997, the Japanese government realised they needed to shut the barn door, banning exports of live cattle and declaring wagyu a ‘national asset’.

It was too late – herds were already being developed in the US and Australia (some of them ‘full-blood’ wagyu, most of them wagyu crossed with other breeds). In 2020, the agriculture ministry proposed a bill to criminalise the unauthorised export of wagyu genetics, including live cattle, embryos and semen.

Today, wagyu is farmed all over the world. An Australian producer, Jack’s Creek, won World’s Best Steak in 2023 for its cross-breed wagyu sirloin, fighting off farmers from Japan, America and Europe.

In 2024, it seems anyone with deep enough pockets wants a piece of Brand Wagyu. Meta founder

Mark Zuckerberg is attempting to rear a herd of wagyu and Angus cattle on his 1,400-acre ranch in Hawaii. His aim, he declared last month, was to create ‘some of the highest-quality beef in the world’.

Zuckerberg’s cattle are to be fed on macadamia nuts and beer produced on the ranch. ‘We want the whole process to be local and vertically integrated,’ he posted on Instagram, along with snaps of his three daughters helping to plant macadamia trees for the herd.

Luxury steak
Wagyu is now farmed all over the world - Beth Evans

Meanwhile, on this side of the pond, you can take your pick: would you like to spend £900 on a wagyu steak in a restaurant in Mayfair, buy a pack of wagyu burgers in Aldi for £4.49, or try the 12-hour wagyu bolognese Brooklyn Beckham is flogging as part of his UberEats takeaway menu?

For British farmers, the spread of wagyu is a positive thing: it’s a luxury product that can be sold at a premium at a time when traditional dairy farming faces an uncertain future. And consumers like the idea of eating a high-end product that’s homegrown – a wagyu steak from Cumbria will clock up significantly fewer air miles than one from Japan.

But for purists, Brand Wagyu is under threat. No longer a prized product available only at great expense in a restaurant importing it from a specific farmer in a particular prefecture in Japan (some chefs even have a bloodline they swear by), it is now readily available. The problem? It’s all called wagyu.

Kotaro Ogawa is the founder of Aragawa, a Tokyo steakhouse which opened in London’s Mayfair last year. The wagyu he imports from Japan and cooks over special binchotan (Japanese white) charcoal ranges from £500 to £900 for a 400g (14oz) serving.

Part of the problem, he says, is that the term has become a catch-all. Now, a cut of meat that may have very little in common with true Japanese A5 beef (the highest possible grade of wagyu) is being sold as wagyu.

‘The word has spread everywhere,’ says Ogawa, speaking over the phone from Tokyo. He believes that allowing wagyu (both the meat and the genetics) to travel all over the world has been good in some ways: ‘If you protect it too much then you never allow it to spread, which makes it difficult to elevate the brand.’ But he concedes that it’s a delicate balance: ‘If you let things spiral, you can’t control [them].’

Wagyu beef at Aragawa
A steak served at Aragawa restaurant, cooked over special binchotan (Japanese white) charcoal - Justin De Souza

For Ogawa, anything reared outside Japan isn’t wagyu. ‘The wagyu that is [produced] abroad – for us, it’s kind of vague. And all the wagyu in the US, Australia, or the UK – well,’ he pauses, ‘we can’t control what the wagyu is because they are crossed with maybe Angus or other cows.’

It isn’t just about the principle, he says, it’s the flavour too. In Japan, ‘the taste of the meat is different, the umami’. So what does he put that down to? ‘Wagyu is not naturally made, it’s created by the producers. The most important thing is how to feed [the cows], from my point of view. The water, what they eat. In Japan they are fed rice straw. And obviously you guys don’t have a rice culture.’

Even if the myths around wagyu’s creation are a little far-fetched, there’s no doubt the cattle are attended to with an extreme level of attention. ‘In Japan we protect them in their very small cells. One wagyu to each cell… I don’t think all the producers are doing massages, but if you take care of your cow, you talk to them, you touch them, and every morning you say how are you doing, are you OK?’

In his London restaurant, Ogawa buys in Tajima wagyu from the Hyogo prefecture, which is prized for its high degree of marbling. All his beef comes from a particular bloodline, descended from a bull called Marumiya-doi, a ‘super breed male’.

‘We only buy from trusted producers. So it’s not only the trusted strains but it’s also the farmers that know what to feed them and how to take care of them.’

Wagyu beef
Wagyu beef is distinctively marbled with fat

In Japan, wagyu is highly regulated. Progeny testing is mandatory. In 2012, an Australian farm discovered counterfeit wagyu was being sold under its name. High-end restaurants in China were serving what they thought was top-grade wagyu when really they had bought standard beef packaged to look like wagyu by fraudsters.

In 2020, the British Wagyu Breeders Association (established in 2014) created an assurance mark so customers can be certain they are buying a genuine wagyu product. Most of the homegrown meat on sale in the UK comes from crossbreeding wagyu with a traditional breed.

Chris Dickinson, a Cumbrian farmer who is a director of the association and a member of the World Wagyu Council, explains that British wagyu is DNA-tagged so its heritage can be traced.

‘It’s mostly sold as “F1 grade” [first generation cross], meaning it has to be at least 50 per cent wagyu to bear the “British wagyu” tag. Maybe in the past there have been companies that have said it’s wagyu and perhaps it hasn’t been. If people are worried about [counterfeit meat] then the tag takes away that chance.’

British wagyu production has been building slowly over the past decade, he says. Now, the number of farmers is starting to increase ‘quite dramatically’. ‘Last year there were over 35,000 wagyu births in Great Britain. There were 17,000 the previous year. So it really is ramping up.’

The 50 per cent wagyu cross that most are rearing suits the British palate, he explains. ‘There’s a market for full-blood stuff, but the F1, the 50 per cent wagyu, in my opinion meets the consumer habits of the UK, because it’s a nice-looking well-marbled product, it has wonderful eating quality – it’s juicy with a lingering aftertaste. You don’t need to add anything when you cook it.’

Full-blood wagyu, he says, is an acquired taste as it’s very rich, whereas a 50 per cent cross eats more like the kind of beef we are accustomed to. Is that really the point, though? Some say comparing a wagyu sirloin with a typical steak is a bit like comparing lobster and scampi.

By definition, it is a different beast. It isn’t just a matter of high-quality versus lower-quality – it isn’t like comparing a very high-cocoa artisan chocolate with a Twirl. It can’t be compared.

What does Ogawa make of the cheaper British wagyu on sale in our supermarkets? ‘It’s a matter of definition,’ he says, diplomatically. ‘It’s wagyu in some respects but for us in our restaurant, we’re not going to call that wagyu.’

Wagyu beef is found on supermarket shelves

For Luca Spiga, the executive chef at Roka, a Japanese concept restaurant with four London branches, where a 150g wagyu steak from the robata grill sells for £103, wagyu is really only wagyu if it’s from Japan.

‘It has to be from Japan, especially for our brand, but also I think meat from Australia or the US cannot compete with Japanese wagyu. We used to have Australian wagyu on the menu which is cheaper, but it wasn’t as good as the Japanese so we just removed it.’ The price is justified, he says, because it’s such a unique product.

Roka’s wagyu is from the Kagoshima prefecture, right on the sea. ‘You can compare it to New Zealand lamb – it’s the best in the world because the sea contributes more flavour to the meat,’ Spiga explains. The wagyu on Roka’s menu is A4 rather than A5 (the grading relates to the amount of meat that can be harvested from the cattle) as they prefer the taste and the very slightly lower fat content, which makes it easier to cook.

‘It still has amazing marbling. It’s a super-rich steak. For us it’s much better than A5 for what we need.’

Wagyu at Roka
Wagyu served at Roka

A search for a full-blood British iteration (the closest you’ll get to Japanese wagyu in this country) will lead you to Shropshire. On a cold morning in January, I visit Wyndford Wagyu. In a vast shed, the sound of Schubert’s Unfinished Symphony drifts through the air. Winter light creeps through the slats from the low sun outside. Save for the wind whistling under the door and the rise and fall of the score, all is still and peaceful.

Before your eyes adjust, the sweet, unmistakable smell of hay and animal is the only thing that gives the shed’s occupants away – it’s home to a herd of cattle. That morning, most are lying down on thick beds of hay, looking distinctly relaxed. It could be the music or the large breakfast of mostly homegrown crops and mature grass they’ve recently tucked into – either way, it’s clear this is a very nice place to be a cow.

‘You’ll notice there’s not a lot of noise as we go round,’ says Jess Edwards, commercial director at Wyndford, one of the largest of just a handful of full-blood wagyu producers in the UK. ‘Everything is very very quiet, very calm… There’s no bellowing, no shouting. Nothing’s getting stressed.’

Wyndford was once a dairy farm. Owner Phil Maddocks had tried wagyu on his travels and decided to try his hand at rearing a herd, so in 2018 he started a new business farming wagyu. ‘He remembered having a wagyu steak with his father in the US and how it was a different experience,’ says Edwards, showing me to the shed where the calves are kept.

At Wyndford, female wagyus are artificially inseminated with wagyu semen, then their embryos are flushed out and implanted in what they call ‘Holstein recipients’ – traditional dairy cows which will carry the wagyu to term.

‘We take a period in the dairy cow’s life where the dairy farm doesn’t really want her. She’s growing up, she’s not producing any milk, she’s not earning her keep [yet], she’s just growing. She has her first full-blood wagyu calf here and then we sell her in the local markets so she can go into a productive milking herd.’

Wyndford’s herd is ‘genetically unique’, drawn from bloodlines in both the US and Australia. They genomically test all their calves ‘so we can say categorically here on the farm that all our cattle are 100 per cent full-blood wagyu’.

‘The original exports from Japan were genomically tested so we’ve got their DNA profiles on the system and every full-blood animal has to be traced back to those original exports. And if they can’t trace the pedigree all the way back through the DNA then it can’t be called a full-blood.’

They sell their genetics too – you can buy straws of wagyu semen from the website. She takes me to see one of the bulls that is showing promise, Vitorrius (they all have names – another way of paying respect to the animal, Edwards says). ‘He’s really exciting. He’s top one per cent of the breed.’ Vitorrius is descended from a bull in Australia whose semen Wyndford bid for. ‘It was just over 1,000 Aussie dollars [around £517] a straw, so not cheap, bearing in mind your average straw for dairy use would be about £25.’

A full-blood wagyu fillet steak from Wyndford
A marbled wagyu fillet steak from Wyndford - Mojo Fuel

They used the semen to inseminate some cows they own on a ranch in Minnesota and brought the embryos back. By the time the calves had been born, they’d had the ‘estimated breeding values’ of the bull in Australia analysed. ‘He turned out to be the biggest eye muscle area [a measure used by breeders] bull in the whole breed. His straw then went up to 60,000 Australian dollars [around £31,000].’

At Wyndford, they won’t sell anything as wagyu if it falls below a marble score of nine. The marble score tells you how much visible intramuscular fat can be found within the meat (as opposed to just around the outside). In Japan, anything between eight and 12 is considered excellent.

To get a score, they upload a picture of the cut meat to an app which is sent to Japan to be analysed. ‘We’ve had meat achieve a marble score of 15 which we were delighted with – that’s on a par with what they’re producing in Australia.’

For some, a marble score of 15 would be a step too far as the additional fat brings an intense richness to the meat; Edwards assures me it’s simply a matter of adjusting one’s palate. ‘It’s like training,’ she jokes, handing me a pack of meat to take away.

In some ways, then, wagyu is a bit like any high-quality ingredient – sometimes it comes down to a matter of taste. You might prefer a milder Parmesan, for example, to a really strong aged one. Who’s to say which is ‘better’?

Aragawa restaurant
Inside Aragawa restaurant in Mayfair, where wagyu beef is priced at £900 - Justin De Souza

For some, wagyu simply isn’t wagyu if it has been reared outside Japan. Others will question if a luxury item is really still a luxury item if you can get it for less than £5 in Aldi.

There seems to be a middle ground – one that allows people to eat high-grade wagyu without the air miles and the eye-watering price tag.

At home, I cook a beautifully marbled 200g Denver steak (a cut taken from the shoulder) from Wyndford which retails at £47. I’m instructed to fry it in a dry pan on a searing heat and not for long. Then rest, slice and sprinkle with salt. The result is magnificent. Rich and sweet, with an almost chocolatey, coffee-like flavour, it is perfectly soft.

It’s strangely familiar – yet like no beef I’ve ever tried before.